The Rolls-Royce Merlin Aircraft Engine: P-51 Mustang Power Defeated the Luftwaffe

The North American P-51 Mustang was the best fighter airplane in World War II. It became available to the U.S. fighter command as a potent package in enough time to tilt the air war with Germany in the Allies’ favor. I wrote about the justly-famous P-51 in a previous post (July 6, 2016). That post can be found in my home page archives. In it, I referred to the Merlin V-12 power plant which, when finally coupled with the great airframe platform from California-based North American Aviation, turned a decent performer into an iconic fighting airplane.

While “Rolls-Royce” on this engine clearly denotes an English heritage, the same can, surprisingly, be said of the P-51 itself. Designed and built by North American Aviation in Los Angeles, California, the airplane’s genesis actually emanated from England. The P-51 began as a specification provided to North American by the British Purchasing Commission early in 1940. Incredibly, the first prototype appeared on September 9, 1940, a mere 102 days after the contract with North American was signed. The NA-73X airframe first flew on October 26, 1940.

Originally designed for the British Allison V-1710 engine, the Mustang prototypes demonstrated disappointing performance at altitudes above 15,000 feet. The B-17 and B-24 bombers of the Eighth U.S. Air Force typically cruised over 20,000 feet on their bombing missions into Germany from bases in England. During the Battle of Britain in mid-1940, the German Luftwaffe was already flying their front-line fighter, the Messerschmidt 109. The Me 109 and the Focke-Wulf 190 would both prove to be a significant threat to Allied bombers in the skies over Germany throughout the war. Despite Britain’s just-in-time introduction in 1940 of their own top-line fighter, the Supermarine Spitfire, the Me 109 still had advantages over it and the older Hawker Hurricane by way of its firepower and its fuel-injected engine. The Messerschmidt had, in addition to 50 caliber machine guns, a 20 mm cannon firing through the spinner of its propeller. That deadly weapon coupled with the much longer firing-burst capability of its guns gave the Me 109 a significant advantage. The Hurricane and the Spitfire had carbureted engines with a typical float-chamber in the fuel system which caused the airplanes to hesitate when abruptly put into an evasive dive maneuver. The fuel-injected 109s had no such problem and could easily overtake their prey on the way down.

The major problem faced by the U.S. Eighth Air Force bomber command by 1942 was the vulnerability of its B-17 and B-24 heavy bombers after leaving their bases in the English countryside and entering German air space. The B-17 “Flying Fortress” was aptly named given the eventual array of thirteen 50 caliber machine guns in eight strategic locations around the aircraft. Early in the war, it was believed that bomber formations of aircraft with that degree of armament would be quite capable of protecting themselves from German fighter interceptors who came up to meet them over German territory. That assumption quickly proved very erroneous as losses mounted.

The solution? Provide fighter escorts for the bombers. Prior to the introduction of the P-51 in late 1943, that assignment was handed to fighter wings typically flying the Republic Aviation P-47 Thunderbolt. The P-47 had two major problems. To begin with, the airplane had a short fuel-limited range which forced it to turn back and abandon its escort duties soon after entering German airspace. That, of course, was precisely when the bomber formations would most likely encounter German fighter resistance. Besides, the chunky P-47 suffered severe disadvantages in aerial combat with the more agile and faster Me 109 and Focke-Wulf 190 German fighters. Bomber losses were severe from the combination of aerial flak guns and German interceptors, culminating in the disastrous bombing raid on Regensburg, Germany, where sixty bombers were lost in one day – some 600 men.

Enter the P-51 Mustang in late 1943 whose horsepower, speed, agility, and high-altitude performance provided a palpable advantage over German counterparts thanks to its supercharged Merlin engine which had replaced the original Allison V17-10 powerplant. With the airplane’s inherently large fuel capacity and an added pair of drop-tanks beneath its wings, the P-51 could go all the way to the target and back with the “heavies.” The bomber crews fondly referred to the Mustang escorts as their “little friends.”

Most of the eventual Mustang production of some 15,000 planes was powered by the Rolls-Royce Merlin built under license by the Packard Motor Car company in Detroit. The Merlin engine was also widely used in other notable wartime aircraft including England’s top fighter, the Spitfire. Nothing in the air during the war could match the powerfully effective Merlin/Mustang combination, however.

I recently watched a wartime documentary on the momentous effort to design and ramp up production of the Merlin engine in England during the early phases of WW II. This was a huge wartime effort on the part of the English who faced the possible invasion of their country and the subjugation of Europe at the hand of Hitler’s Germany. The film was totally enlightening and engrossing – so many history and social lessons to be derived from the can-do spirit of the English.

My wife and I recently saw the movie, The Darkest Hour, which portrayed Winston Churchill’s lonely desperation in 1939/1940 as the destiny of England and, indeed, all of Europe became increasingly problematic. Fact is always stranger and more dramatic than fiction, and this fine movie drives home the point. So much hung in the balance, a balance which finally tilted favorably to the Allies on the knife-edge of numerous pivotal decisions and efforts. The Merlin engine and the P-51 Mustang airframe from North American Aviation were two of those very decisive factors which ultimately doomed Hitler – especially as combined together in the final P-51 designs. In 1945, many of Germany’s major cities had been reduced to rubble by Allied bombers based in England which, thanks to the Mustangs and their intrepid pilots, could now reach their targets.

I will close by calling upon a recollection from my earlier post on the iconic P-51 Mustang when the Collings Foundation brought their Wings of Freedom touring air show to nearby Moffett Field. My two young grandsons and I stood close by on the tarmac as their P-51, Betty Jane, prepared to fly.

Firing-Up the Big Merlin-Packard Engine of Betty Jane

As my grandsons and I stood outside the roped area, a mere 50 feet from Betty Jane, the pilot fired up the big Packard-built twelve-cylinder engine sporting a large, four-bladed propeller. The pilot yelled “clear” from the cockpit, the big prop started to turn, and the engine came to life after belching smoke and the usual series of backfires. The engine sounded a throaty roar as Betty Jane moved out toward the taxi-way. My grandsons held their ears…I did not and drank it all in. In my mind’s eye, I could imagine the emotions of a pilot on the flight line at Leiston, England, bringing that big engine to life en-route to yet another bomber escort mission over Germany in 1944/45. Despite the huge war effort and all the backing provided by the allies for combat flight operations, out there on the flight line, as the engine coughed, sputtered, roared to life, and the canopy closed, it was one man in one machine – very far from home. The pilot was about to face the uncertainties of weather, navigation, and his enemy counterparts who would be out there, somewhere, waiting for him and the opportunity to shoot him and his machine out of the sky.

For me, it is difficult to conjure up a more daring and exhilarating human experience than that encountered by those flyers in World War II. For them at the time, there surely seemed nothing “romantic” about the deadly task they faced – only a sense of high adventure and “what the hell, I hope I come back from this one!” I have read the late-life accounts of some who flew Mustangs against the German Luftwaffe and lived to tell about it. Despite some surely ugly recollections of killing and death which stubbornly remain, time dulls many of the sharp edges – as it always does – for these men. These flyers are revered by the public for their courage, daring, and skill during wartime, and that is appropriate. Despite old age and the challenges of settling down after flying, these warriors possess indelible and precious memories of that time in their young lives when they and their machines defied the great odds stacked against them. Those who flew the P-51 Mustang, to a man, relate their admiration of and gratitude to the airplane that saw them through.


Nothing defines who we are as individuals more than the essence of our natural mothers and fathers. We each come into this world preceded by one father, one mother and two grandfathers and two grandmothers who also influence our being. The lucky ones among us descended from men and women of fine character and ability. Those of us fortunate enough to have truly known and experienced all six of these key individuals while maturing into adulthood are additionally blessed. A few weeks ago, I was combing though some family photographs and came upon this one, a scarce image of my paternal grandmother, Martha Koss Kubitz. I possess few images of her and this is the most personal of those, taken late in life.

I “knew” and remember both sets of grandparents, but only through the gauzy veil of childhood memory given that our family of four left its Chicago roots in 1948 when we moved to California. I was then eight years old. Gazing at my grandmother’s image both fortified my distant memory of her and caused me to contemplate, yet again, the fleeting nature of our existence on this earth. Our own four young grandchildren have no real knowledge of Martha and her husband, Elmer, my grandfather. Nor are they likely ever to express the degree of curiosity which cares to know what kind of people their great-great grandparents were. It seems almost certain that today’s third generation removed will not be interested in their family roots beyond their own grandparents – and that seems such a shame. The connection between one’s own grandparents and grandchildren, a separation of four generations, seems palpable and significant to many of us in the middle of that generation span who are now in the later stages of life. I can see personality traits and physical resemblances that are recognizable across those four generations, but I know that once my time is up, those connections could easily be lost forever unless recorded somewhere. Martha and Elmer Kubitz would typically become merely names on census rolls and other archived documents in the years ahead. This written blog post about my grandmother Martha is my humble and personal attempt keep her memory alive in a medium separate from the vanishing recollections of her descendants. It was only within the last twenty years that I learned the bulk of what I know about Martha. Nancy, my childhood Chicago cousin, furnished much of that information via her handwritten letters from the East Coast.

I had earlier heard conjecture that Martha Koss emigrated to America from Hamburg, Germany which turned out to be partly true. Once here, she eventually found her way to the Chicago area where she met my grandfather, Elmer Chester Kubitz. Through internet perseverance, I was able to locate the immigration paper documenting her family’s arrival in New York aboard the ship Moravia on March 10, 1890. The ship’s ledger lists her father Anton Koss, her mother Marie, sisters Mathilde and Pauline, and brothers Auguste and Franz. Martha is the middle child at age 4. This document lists her hometown in Germany as Bolchau, not Hamburg, but the Moravia’s port of embarkation is noted as Hamburg/Kerre.

A 1910 U.S. census report from Chicago shows Elmer and Martha Kubitz residing with four-month old first child, Elmer Junior, and living next door to Martha’s parents and her brother Frank (formerly Franz). I have a photo-copy of Martha’s certificate of marriage to Elmer C. Kubitz in Michigan, dated July 17, 1909 – courtesy of my cousin Nancy.

Such documents gleaned from the internet that illuminate the family’s history are very special to me. There are no letters, original documents, or mementos of any kind in my possession that relate to my paternal grandparents save a few notes from my grandmother sent to me from Chicago in the 1960’s, long after my father was transferred to California by United Air Lines in 1948. Even during a time when sentimentality, a sense of personal history, and the luxury of introspection and perspective often played second fiddle to the urgencies of getting on with daily life and living, the dearth of things-saved with respect to both sets of my grandparents is sadly unusual.

My grandmother Martha was a dutiful wife and mother, raising four sons and one daughter while eking out a living in a small West Chicago storefront which was divided into a candy/toy store run by Martha and Grandpa Elmer’s radio repair shop. My grandparents lived in the back of the same building, just behind the storefront curtains, in spartan quarters quite devoid of natural light as I recall. It was only last year that I came upon a photo of that Diversey Avenue storefront circa 1950 with Uncle Elmer Kubitz Junior standing out-front, thanks to second cousin Mary.

I wish I had known my grandmother and grandfather better. There are so many things I would like to know. Throughout my youth, my father always spoke well of them both given the underlying tone that life was not easy for the family of seven. My grandfather was reportedly an intelligent, amiable man with a great sense of humor and an innate honesty. Despite his amiability, Grandpa Elmer believed in discipline when appropriate for his children. My father, and consequently I, both were raised to respect adult authority. My grandmother was a stoutly-built, caring woman who stood by her husband’s side through thick and thin during some very hard financial times. Doctor’s visits to the Kubitz household were virtually unknown due to the lack of money: Home remedies were the order of the day for any ills. Warm Castor oil in the ear was administered by Martha when my father had one of his frequent severe ear-aches. One of these bouts left him with a punctured ear-drum. I recall that my grandparents often retired to a local tavern after the day’s work was done, their way of dealing with life’s demands. I can picture the scene with Elmer calling out to Martha: “Hey Mart (he called her that), let’s go down for a beer!”

My dad, Alfred, attended only one year of high school at Chicago’s Austin High in order to work and contribute to the family’s support during the lean depression years. Despite Dad’s meager early education, he became the quintessential life-long learner who studied his way to a long and successful career in mechanical engineering at United Air Lines.

Dad’s mother was barely literate in the written English vernacular as evidenced by the few letters I received from her during my college years and after graduation. This language challenge was palpable despite her life-long residence in the United States after coming to America at age four. Nevertheless, my grandmother’s offspring all did well for themselves as career-oriented adults with families. Somehow, my grandparents managed to pass the torch of opportunity and achievement to their children despite their own humble beginnings. While writing this blog post, I retrieved from my files the cache of four items sent to me by my grandmother which I have fortunately retained. This excerpt from one of the letters she wrote to me in 1966 sums up my fondness and respect for my grandmother. Using some license in translation, page three reads:

“…that sweetheart of yours [my young wife, Linda] sure is pretty. You sure know how to pick them. I am glad that you like her…Linda looks to be a very nice girl. You bet she is pretty. So you had a good time together [in Hawaii]. This place here [probably her daughter’s house] was so dry – no beer, only Nehi Root Beer. Well, you can keep sober with that. Your Mother-Dad-Karen sure is a family to be proud of. I have four daughter-in-laws. I like them all: They’re are all good to me and they’re all good-looking. My sons know how to pick ‘em. Well, Alan, a simple letter: Really isn’t very much, but when it’s so sincerely said, it has a special touch and when it goes to someone who’s very dear to me.”

Grandma Kubitz
who loves you
and always will

What can I say? Thank goodness that I have a few such letters in my possession which shed light on the earthy and perceptive lady who was my grandmother. They, my dim recollections, and letters from cousins who knew Martha well are my sole substitute for all the years of isolation from my grandparents and other Chicago roots.

Despite my grandmother’s limited ability with written English, her son Alfred, my father, was surprisingly fluent with the written word given his truncated early schooling. This ability of self-expression was complemented by his fine aptitude for engineering and things mechanical. I still retain several tautly written letters by my father eloquently expressing displeasure over poor service or unreliable products he had encountered as an adult. One of these was addressed directly to Roger Smith, the past CEO of General Motors, expressing displeasure over some negative aspect of Dad’s Oldsmobile that was not adequately addressed by previous letters to GM’s lower management. Dad was very good at going right to the heart of the matter at hand and succinctly stating his case, reminiscent of an experienced attorney but without the legalese! Alas – predictably, Dad never heard from Mr. Smith… which frustrated him no end! I still marvel at his ability with the written word, and I wonder where in the world it came from and just how it blossomed in him as he matured. I wonder about that and so many other things connected with my grandparents and ancestors. As I write this, there is currently much discussion in the United States about “merit-based” immigration into this country – a policy which would give heavy preference to those applicants who already have resources and a solid education. While the proposal has some merit, I cannot help thinking that so many multi-generation success stories in the United States had their roots in seemingly unexceptional immigrants who came to America in crowded shipboard steerage with little to their name. Most likely, that was the case with Martha’s father, Anton Koss, who is listed in the 1910 U.S. Chicago census as a “hod-carrier” working on “new buildings.”

I sum up my feelings about my grandmother, who I barely knew, as follows: Martha, you and Elmer did good – real good – in passing the torch of opportunity to your offspring despite the great difficulties you both faced along the way. This is my acknowledgement of same and my personal tribute to you. Rest in peace…you are loved and remembered.

The Lawrence Welk Show: Forever Young – “Wunnerful, Wunnerful”

Watching the old Lawrence Welk television shows on PBS is like traveling through a time-machine for those of us who grew up during the era of the nineteen fifties, sixties, and on into the eighties.

Last night, as so often is the case, I went to my DVR and brought up recorded episodes of the Lawrence Welk show which still regularly play on PBS television. Experience has taught me that there is no better way to “wind-down” before bedtime after a hectic day than reliving music from that magical era, courtesy of Mr. Welk and his “Champagne Music Makers.” Sadly, today’s generation, by and large, would find watching and listening to Lawrence Welk quite beyond the pale. It is a shame that the concepts of “music” and “talent” have become so degraded in this day-and-age of uber-amplified sound and slurred, unintelligible lyrics.

I was in my early teens in 1955 when the Lawrence Welk show debuted on that also-adolescent medium called television. For twenty-seven years, the Lawrence Welk show came into our living rooms on Saturday night, sponsored first by Dodge, then Geritol (don’t laugh!), and later, via syndication. Now, in 2017, sixty-two years later, we can still watch the old shows on PBS. How many television shows have lasted that long on network reruns besides “Lucy,” or perhaps Dick Van Dyke/Mary Tyler Moore?


Last night, on my selected show from 1974, Mr. Welk proudly exclaimed that the “big-bands” were reportedly staging a comeback, quickly adding that “we never left!” Indeed, Lawrence Welk had been in the big-band game since 1924 when he left the farm in North Dakota to seek success in the music business. In the end, he outlasted all the big names including such luminaries as Benny Goodman, Harry James, Tommy Dorsey, and Artie Shaw – all of whom are among my all-time favorite purveyors of jazz/swing. I love the big-band sound, and aside from periodic doses of schmaltz, Welk’s band could and did deliver. The group was comprised of seriously fine musicians, many of whom were with Mr. Welk for ten, twenty, even thirty years. The band could swing and did swing often on the great numbers made famous by Goodman, James, Dorsey and Shaw. It has always fascinated me to observe the pure joy of Welk’s musicians when the play-list presented them with the opportunity to “cut-loose” from an otherwise scripted, sometimes staid program. No, Welk’s fine musicians were not cut from quite the same cloth as a Benny Goodman or a Harry James, but the group played those great swing/sweet band numbers with virtuosity and enthusiasm.

Welk had many singers and dancers as well with which to front the band. All were excellent and versatile entertainers. As good a female singer as any I have ever heard was Ralna English whose distinctive, effortless vocals soared as she visibly sparkled in the intimate camera close-ups which were hallmarks of Welk telecasts. Although always the gentleman, Lawrence did like the pretty girls! Ms. English and then-husband, Guy Hovis, performed many memorable duets as well – across the full musical spectrum. Gail Farrell, Mary Lou Metzger, and “Champagne Lady” Norma Zimmer sparkled and shone with their wholesome beauty and talent. Several of the musicians were regular soloists: Bob Ralston on piano, Henry Cuesta on clarinet, and Myron Floren on accordion were as good as it gets as musicians. One of my favorites was trumpet man Johnny Zell who combined a showman’s flair with his obvious virtuosity. And finally, the dance duo of ex-Disney Mouseketeer Bobby Burgess and partner Cissy King was always a treat to behold. Their versatile dance routines with the band solidly behind them were, in a significant way, pioneering dance performances on early television.

Even the Great Harry James?

Auditioning and winning a performing spot in the Welk family required tremendous talent…and versatility – even as a musician. The reed section of the band which normally plays saxophone is often seen doubling on clarinet or even flute and piccolo! Harry James who went from lead trumpet with the great Benny Goodman band of 1937/38 to front his very own band for many years once auditioned with Mr. Welk prior to that time. Harry James was a prodigy, a virtuoso trumpet player as a youngster capable of handling lead trumpet with any top jazz/swing band in the early days, yet he did not receive an offer from Mr. Welk – ostensibly because the only instrument he played was trumpet! James went on to become a music legend in the 1940’s and 50’s – in my opinion, the finest, most versatile trumpet player, ever.

Lawrence Welk’s 1903 Birthplace: Strasburg, North Dakota

I suspect there may have been a personality/life-style disconnect between Harry James and Welk who tended to favor musicians with mid-west roots and attitudes – especially those from North Dakota, his home state. Lawrence Welk radiated conservative, middle-of-the-country attitudes, and to some viewers, seemed too “square.” He did have considerable trouble with his accent which produced such parodies as “Turna offa the bubble machine,” in reference to the “champagne music” bubbles which often floated among the musicians as they musically bounced their way through some bubbly, flagship-style musical arrangement. Welk was known for his staple responses to his performers such as, “Wasn’t that just wunnerful?” And then there was, “Wunnerful, wunnerful.” Yes, it seemed somewhat staid and square even back then, but in the harsh glare of today’s attitudes, watching Welk and his shows is a timeless reminder of a simpler time, a time when true talent and professionalism made an impression on audiences. I always liked and respected that about the Welk show.

Make no mistake about it: Lawrence Welk, himself, could really “swing out” on some of the legendary big-band numbers. My favorite images are of him in front of the band playing a swing classic like Woody Herman’s “Woodchopper’s Ball,” baton on the beat and hips and feet moving in sync – just letting it all hang out! The joyous grin on his face completed the picture of a man lost in his music, oblivious to everything else.

Time Stands Still and We Are Forever Young!

Lawrence Welk passed away in 1992, ten years after the last installment of “The Lawrence Welk Show.” Mr. Welk left behind a considerable organization and fan-base which still thrives today, sixty-two years after his television debut in 1955. That is quite a tribute to the man and his impact on America. Then there is the great music he played and the way he and his musical family presented it. Today, watching his shows which replay annually on public television is the only real big-band experience left to us. The music of the great composers and song-writers should never be lost. Nor should the fabulous performances of the big-band era. Thank goodness for the PBS re-runs. It is always my hope that today’s youngsters might push aside cynical attitudes and recognize the quality entertainment that Lawrence Welk provided America for so many years.

Many of the musical stars in the Welk family that we grew up with are now gone. Through the miracle of television, we can still see and hear them perform once again, forty, fifty, or sixty years later, just as they did “live.” The graceful athleticism of dancers Arthur Duncan, Bobby Burgess, Cissy King, and Mary Lou Metzger is undiminished by time. The fresh, wholesome beauty of Welk’s female performers and the musical artistry of accordionist Myron Floren and all the other musicians still shine.

Watching the Welk show after all these years is akin to entering a time-machine tunnel and emerging to once again experience performers forever young…and so are we!

Keep a Song in Your Heart! Good advice.

Facing the Big Cats: Clyde Beatty and His Famous Circus Act

Last month, the famed Ringling Brothers Circus closed after many decades in the business. In this multi-media age, the circus found it increasingly difficult to compete with the torrent of distractions available to the public. And there was criticism, too, of the animal acts which have always been a staple of the “greatest shows on earth.”

The greatest of all such acts was that of Clyde Beatty and his menagerie of big cats, predominately lions and tigers. For over three decades, this most unusual man entertained the circus public by entering an arena-cage of unpredictable cats and coaxing them to show their stuff on command. These cats were not de-fanged or de-clawed cats (against Beatty’s principles) rendered relatively safe; they were animals in their prime, jungle-bred, and capable of pure havoc when not expertly handled.

Clyde Beatty knew his business, and quite a business it was for him and the various circuses with which he performed. As a youngster, I well recall the fame and mystique his name engendered. Not one in a hundred youngsters today would recognize the name, yet Clyde Beatty enjoyed a national prominence which began in the early nineteen-thirties and lasted for over thirty-five years.

I just bought a copy of his book, Facing the Big Cats, published in 1965. It is my second copy: I bought my first copy the year it appeared, and I still have it. My wife asked me, “Why do you need two copies of the same book?” My answer: “Because this second copy is in pristine condition and the book is an exemplary exposition of big cat behavior by a true American icon!” I was enthralled with the adventure, the copious photographs, and the taut, incisive text of the book back in 1965 and continue to be so today. I have a shelf of books on Africa and its wildlife, and this book fits in perfectly thanks to the big cat insight contained within its pages.

In his book, Beatty, with the help of writer Edward Anthony, deftly reveals his exploits and close calls with his jungle-bred charges. Beatty chose to work only with cats born in the wild as opposed to those raised in captivity because the latter can become somewhat domesticated and docile – to a point. He is quick to emphasize the inevitable natural instincts of all cats which lurk just below the surface, and, when not quickly recognized by a trainer, can result in injury or death. Particularly notable is his knowledge of every cat he worked with as an individual personality, replete with personal idiosyncrasies. It is this deep knowledge of and involvement with his animals that kept him largely whole and alive through thirty-five years in the big cage with these overwhelmingly powerful cats.

Beatty mentions many of his animals by name: Two of his favorite lions, Sultan (see picture) and Pharaoh are described in the book. Pharaoh is described as “…my most dependable lion. The biggest and most powerful animal in the act, he performs with spirit and never makes any trouble. More than any lion I have ever trained, he has curbed the fighting instinct. He gets into very few brawls [with other animals], but is a strict disciplinarian and when one of the other lions – perhaps a newcomer to the act – makes the mistake of advancing toward him with an angry growl and bared fangs, Pharaoh takes care of the situation by sending the offender spinning with a slap of his mighty paws. He has more natural dignity than any big cat I have ever handled. He comports himself with a kind of majesty that almost seems a reminder to the other animals that he expects them to be respectful in his presence. Pharaoh is seldom challenged. Among his co-performers are some pretty tough lions, but they don’t seem to want to tangle with him.”

There were numerous close-calls and near disasters for Beatty. Performing his act in Honolulu in 1961, one of his lions, Brutus, badly clawed him. Beatty had made a mistake that night during the act, forgetting that the cage area in Honolulu was purposely erected to be several feet shorter than usual. Beatty found himself unexpectedly backing into the bars while “jousting” with Brutus using his ever-present chair as a shield. Beatty explained that a trainer must, at all times, be completely aware of each animal, the cage area, and his exact position in it. His awareness lapse of the configuration change that night led to being surprisingly backed into the cage bars by Brutus. At that instant, the animal also became surprised by his cornered trainer, then confused, and ultimately aroused at this unfamiliar situation and pressed forward and upward digging his claws into Beatty’s left shoulder. The situation quickly became very tricky and Beatty was fortunate to have extracted himself from it without sustaining even more serious injury.

Afterward, when recovered from the incident and back on the job again, Beatty visited Brutus in his cage and found “the old Brutus, my good friend.” He recalled that the big cat wanted his ear rubbed through the bars “…and as I performed this ritual his expression was as benign as that of the most harmless and docile of house cats. But Brutus is one of those friends who likes to play rough, a kind of rowdy practical joker.”

Beatty recalled reading Martin Johnson’s famous book Lion and its description of a lion prior to a kill: “Its tail was slashing and its head dropped low.” Beatty added, “Well that describes Brutus perfectly before he upraised himself and pinned me against the bars. And that is why it had flashed across my mind that this was no longer the Brutus I knew, that this was a Brutus bent on killing.”

Beatty concludes, “More than once I have confused people by referring to a lion or a tiger as a friend. Without having any illusions about their trouble-making potential, a trainer develops an affection for his animals. It is possible to love them without fully trusting them. There are little ways in which these big, ferocious beasts convey that they have confidence in you and trust you – to a point.” It took great courage and refined experience to go into a cage with such powerful and ultimately unpredictable cats night after night. Anything could and usually did happen over a period of time. Beatty’s animals had unique personalities and, not infrequently, a full-bore, snarling fight erupted during the act between individuals who did not like one another. At that point, all hell could and often did break loose in the cage. Beatty was well aware of signs to watch for every moment he was in the cage. A lesser man would never have survived relatively intact for over thirty-five years of performing.

Here is a page from Facing the Big Cats: Note Beatty’s comment, below!

As a young man, I developed a deep interest in the big cats and the exploits of those who dealt with them. The excellent book Hunter by J.A. Hunter kick-started my interest back in the early nineteen-sixties. Born Free, the true story of Elsa the lioness further nurtured that interest along with the excellent movie Out of Africa. Both the book by J.A. Hunter, who was one of the last and greatest white-hunter/game-wardens of old Africa, and Beatty’s book, Facing the Big Cats, serve as the practical man’s guide to animal behavior. Reading these accounts, one comes away not with theoretical animal psychology, but rather adventure and knowledge rooted in years of experience and direct observation. And fascinating reading it all is!

Postscript: Thankfully today, respect for animals and their treatment has grown by leaps and bounds from attitudes prevalent within my early lifetime. I am certain that the proper treatment and preservation of big cats and other wildlife would be paramount in the minds of both J.A. Hunter and Clyde Beatty were they alive today to witness the dim prospects of these animals and their environments, victims of our modern, human-oriented world. It is undeniable that, while both men earned their livings long ago on the backs of some of nature’s most marvelous creatures, they nevertheless had great respect for the animals they dealt with. Times have changed. Let us hope that human society will properly adapt and protect and preserve these magnificent creatures, no matter what the cost and effort.

Click on the link below to read my earlier post titled: J. A. Hunter: The Adventures of a Game Warden in an Africa Which Is No More

A Lasting Presence Amid a Sea of Constant Change

Is it not a comfort to find something in this life of constant and rapid change that bucks the tide? For me, it most certainly is – but why is that?

The cloistered, open-air sandstone hallways of Stanford University contain a number of interesting things, but one unlikely candidate has left an indelible impression upon my sensibilities.

This finely-tiled drinking fountain was a gift of Stanford’s class of 1926. For almost ninety-one years, tucked away from view in a corner of the arched hallways which surround the school’s “inner quadrangle,” this little jewel has rebuffed the onslaught of efficient, modern, stainless steel replacement plumbing…and I am so glad for it. And it is still functional, reliably delivering a sprightly stream of cool drinking water upon command – despite its advanced age.

Linda and I had visited the nearby Stanford Museum (now known as the Cantor Arts Center) last week. As we walked from there to the campus bookstore, we cut through the inner quad, the focal point of the university campus. I took this picture as we turned into the surrounding hallway, and, as has been the case since 1960 when I first enrolled as a student, the fountain was still there, unchanged and right where it was supposed to be. The experience for me is akin to happily greeting an old, dear friend once again who is defying age and still doing fine – looking good despite the many years.

We First “Met” in 1960

I retain a somewhat fuzzy yet stubbornly persistent recollection of first encountering that colorful old fountain and pausing for a drink during my first week as a student in the fall of 1960. As I recall that Saturday afternoon, I was crossing campus on my way to the women’s dorm to pick up a girl named Virginia, my Saturday afternoon date to my first Stanford football game as a student. The University of Wisconsin was the opponent that day in the contest held in 90,000 seat Stanford Stadium, a half-mile walk across campus.

I remember pausing for a drink of water and subsequently encountering and greeting a recent acquaintance of mine who was passing by. As I turned to continue my journey to the women’s dorm, I cast a backward glance at the unusual, tiled fountain which had just satisfied my thirst. At that point – for whatever reason – I bookmarked the moment in the deeper recesses of my memory bank, and it has remained there ever since. Perhaps the euphoria of being a newly-arrived student on the Stanford campus on a football Saturday was the catalyst.

For sure, the memory of that moment and that location (the fountain) is still subject to immediate recall after, lo, these many years. I have always been intrigued by events of the past – the power of time and place in our lives, and that incident and that place have somehow stood the test of time – fifty-seven years, to be exact.

Hopefully, I can still manage to amble past that very spot on Stanford’s inner quad twenty years from now and renew my acquaintance, yet again, with that same unassuming, yet satisfying campus landmark. I hope it will remain just as it was and is in 1926, and 1960, and 2017, immune to the ravages of time and change, even though I surely will not be so fortunate.

Voices from My Past: Heard Through a Blog Post!

It is amazing how small this world has become thanks to technology and the reach of social media and blogs. My posts are viewed more than a thousand times each month including a sizeable percentage of views from outside the United States. Two months ago, a mid-west reader responded to one of my earlier posts with the comment: “I believe we are related!” Inasmuch as I had long ago (1948), at age eight, moved with my family to California from Chicago, Illinois, I was surprised and intrigued.

It so happens that Mary is a “lost” second cousin of mine originally from Chicago whose Grandfather Elmer was my Uncle Elmer – the older brother of my dad. Here is Elmer standing in front of his father’s radio repair shop on Diversey Avenue in Chicago, sometime in the early nineteen fifties. His dad was also named Elmer, and he was my paternal grandfather.

It is my grandfather and his tiny radio repair shop, mentioned in that post of mine, which caught second cousin Mary’s eye. The last portion of the post contains a picture of my grandparents (Mary’s great-grandparents) standing behind the counter of their little shop in Chicago (circa 1947) – the only photo of its kind in the entire family, apparently.

Inasmuch as I grew up only a mile or two from my grandparents and their “mom & pop” store with living quarters in the back, I quite vividly recall that shop and have often wished there were another picture of it and them… somewhere. Mary fortunately was able to provide the first photo, used here, showing the exterior of the shop which no longer exists. I well recall the red/orange neon sign in the window announcing: “Radio Service.” My memory bell “rang” at first glance.

On a 2004 vacation trip to Chicago, my wife and I returned to the scenes of my boyhood. I was amazed to find that most everything was still there, including our old brick apartment building, all looking just as recalled some 56 years later. Sadly, the building which housed the little radio repair shop at 6755 Diversey Ave. had long ago been cleared away for a large banquet hall/restaurant which today covers much of the block. I had really hoped to find that little storefront, the seat of so much of our family’s history…and my boyhood consciousness.

Soon after “finding” second cousin Mary, I met her cousin Linda, via E-mail. We have begun to fill-in a number of blanks in the Kubitz family history by exchanging recollections and pictures. Interestingly, both Mary and Linda were not at all sure about the history/existence of my grandparent’s radio repair shop on Diversey Ave. I, on the other hand had no knowledge at all of their grandfather’s (Elmer, pictured in the first photo) later radio repair shop on Belmont Ave. in Chicago. And so begins an interesting quest to learn more about the family history!

I am glad that second cousin Mary “discovered” me and my blog and took the time to verify the family connection. As so often happens, family history gets lost as time and distance take their inevitable toll. For me, leaving Chicago in 1948 when United Air Lines transferred my father, meant severing close ties with my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. There were no overt reasons why that should have happened so completely as it did. Coming from a family of five kids, as in my father’s case, family dynamics are always a part of the equation, but, mainly, the effect of time and distance took their toll. The daily scramble for a better life takes time and attention away from extended family solidarity. That was especially true back then when Chicago seemed so far away from San Francisco, California.

Thank goodness I was old enough to have collected indelible images and impressions of my close relatives before leaving them. I have always remained curious about them and sad that I never really got to know them as well as I would have liked.

For more background on this post and my personal/family history, click on these links to other applicable posts of mine:

“Out of Africa” / “The End of the Game”

There are few things that sadden me more than the inevitable fate of Africa’s wildlife at the hands of “civilization.” My message, here, touches on that theme while offering a broad-brush picture of Africa, past and present.

I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills,” opens the richly written and highly acclaimed memoir, Out of Africa, by Karen Blixen (pen name: Isak Dinesen). In a curious chain of circumstances, my life-long fascination with Africa and its wildlife has recently been rekindled by her story and by other recent events. Many will recall the magnificent 1985 film, Out of Africa, which starred a young Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, directed by Sidney Pollack. The story’s setting recounts the sweeping panorama that was East Africa and Kenya in the early days of its capitol, Nairobi.

It was in Nairobi that many Brits and other Europeans opened up new colonial frontiers for the British Empire. People came for a multitude of reasons: Land grants from the government, pure adventure, and the opportunity to start a new life in a new place – whatever the root motivation. And those who came and risked the hardships of raw Africa in the early twentieth century were either fools or hardy adventurers, determined and pre-destined to succeed, there.

One of those who could and did meet Africa’s challenge was the Scotsman, John Alexander Hunter, who quickly became the most celebrated “white hunter” and later game warden in Africa’s history. Hunter arrived in Nairobi from Scotland in 1908 seeking adventure and a livelihood. Indeed, there was a need for “animal control” during the early days when native Africans eked out an existence among the then-teeming wildlife that surrounded them. Men like Hunter dealt with marauding elephants and rhinos that destroyed crops of the Masai and the Kikuyu farmers. And there were the occasional man-eaters, lions which had tasted human flesh and found the taking too easy. In the early days of plentiful game, white hunters paid their bills by guiding hunting safaris of the rich and privileged. Few people had the foresight in the 1920’s and 30’s to envision the dire wildlife situation which exists today in Africa. J.A. Hunter saw it coming as he later turned to work as a game warden and “gun safety” for strictly photographic safaris. It was J.A. Hunter’s iconic little book, Hunter, that first triggered my personal African odyssey more than fifty years ago. For that story as related on my earlier blog post about J.A. Hunter, click on the following link:

One of Nairobi’s early settlers not destined to make East Africa their permanent home was Karen Blixen who published Out of Africa in 1937, six years after returning to her native Denmark. Her memoir of the years 1913 to 1931 spent on her coffee farm high near the foot of the Ngong Hills, a dozen or so miles from Nairobi, creates a brilliant collage of Africa, Kenya’s bountiful wildlife, and the inscrutable native Africans who served her and her homestead. She related well to the Kikuyu and Somali Africans who worked her farm and household, even forming close bonds with several of those who served inside her home. Nonetheless, she appreciated her ultimate limits in that regard as she noted, “On our safaris and on the farm, my acquaintance with the Natives developed into a settled and personal relationship. We were good friends. I reconciled myself to the fact that while I should never quite know or understand them, they knew me through and through, and were conscious of the decisions I was going to take, before I was certain about them, myself.”

Blixen’s eloquent depictions in the book serve not only as a personal memoir of a bigger-than-life true story, but as a brilliant tapestry of early colonial East Africa, the traditions of safari and Africa’s teeming wildlife, and the challenging surroundings which engulfed the author. Earnest Hemingway, no stranger to literary honors, thought so highly of Out of Africa and its merits that he proposed Blixen as a worthy contender for a Nobel Prize in literature.

There is another prophetic book about Africa which, despite my early naivete concerning the subject, I was prescient enough to purchase in 1965, the year of its initial publication. Its title: The End of the Game, by Peter Beard. It has become something of a cult title, yet despite the author’s unorthodox style, the book was prophetic about the end of “the game” in Africa. While expressing grave pessimism over the fate of Africa’s game animals, the book’s larger thrust is a poke at “the game” as played in Nairobi and elsewhere by the early, privileged white “invaders” from colonial Britain and Europe as they went about executing new “land grants” and confiscating land from the resident natives to build their empires. Does that sound familiar to students of the American West and its history? The pages of this book contain many glimpses of the early settlers in and around Kenya including Baroness (Karen) Blixen and her lover and platonic ideal, the storied, Oxford educated white hunter, Denys Finch Hatton. Blixen and Finch Hatton came from aristocratic, wealthy backgrounds in Denmark and England, respectively. Like so many others of privilege who comprised the early colonial settlements in Kenya, they seemed by background unfit and unprepared to deal, long-term, with the demands of African existence. Blixen and her Danish nobleman husband at the time, Bror Blixen, made the ill-informed decision to plant coffee at their farm, ignoring the fact that the land was too elevated for favorable results. That fact and a later, devastating fire that destroyed the farm’s coffee processing barn, doomed Karen Blixen’s success in Africa.

On the other hand, men like J.A. Hunter and H.K. Binks arrived in Africa already equipped with a steely inner-core and flexible attitudes, tempered by the experiences of a well-grounded, challenging early life at “home.”

H.K. “Pop” Binks came from Yorkshire and arrived in Nairobi in 1900, making him one of the town’s earliest white settlers. He lived very modestly in Nairobi with his wife “Binkie” until death claimed him in 1971. During his lifetime in Nairobi, Binks plied numerous trades, including local photographer, astronomer, and author. He exhibited the attitudes and adaptability that life in Africa demanded. I have read first-hand accounts concerning the initiative and resilience of Mr. Binks, and at least one educated voice who knew him personally claimed him to be “the most interesting person I ever knew.” In his book, African Rainbow, Binks stated: “I have been lonelier in the crowded streets of a city than in the great open spaces of Africa, with all wild things for companions.”

In 1965, I received a personal note from Mr. Binks in response to a letter I wrote to him at his Nairobi address. I had asked if he had any reminiscences of old Nairobi he could share with me – strictly because of my interest in East Africa and early settlers like him. He very kindly answered my “out of the blue” letter but explained he was already involved with a “home” publisher (perhaps his book, African Rainbow) and could not comply. He wished me luck in my search.

Needless to say, I was pleased and grateful that he cared enough to reply to me. I have kept that folded little note from Binks tucked in one of my J.A. Hunter books for over fifty years, now – a prized connection to the East Africa that once was.

Over time, Africa methodically weeded out its unfit would-be residents just as it has always done within its animal populations. Changing conditions hastened the demise of the colonials who enjoyed a privileged existence in old Africa. In a similar vein, evolving world and local conditions appear also to foretell the virtual demise of Africa’s crown jewel, its diverse animal populations, roaming free and wild.

Today, population pressure from within Africa threatens its wildlife like never before. Whereas J.A. Hunter was occasionally called upon to kill a marauding elephant or rhino intent on invading a local native village, today the local human populations expand inexorably outward occupying and fencing vast stretches of what were once grazing lands where animals roamed free. And today we must deal with organized poachers who continue to cull the finest wildlife specimens from the remaining small numbers still “protected” in game preserves.

Saving Africa’s wildlife can succeed only with world-wide support. Much lip service is paid, but a comprehensive, long-range plan and adequate moneys appear wanting.

The problems involved in protecting Africa’s wildlife are very challenging, yet, in the face of halting progress to date, it seems to me that man is a failed species, himself, if he cannot prevent the decimation of Africa’s (and nature’s) crowning glory. I venture to say, in that case, man will ultimately prove incapable of saving himself from himself. If so, perhaps we deserve no better fate as a species.